‘The Köln Concert’

D.S. Waldman

We showed up with a U-Haul and a Prius and could not see the ocean. They lay it on thick there, a friend had said of Pacifica, two, three weeks at a time. We pulled off at the bluffs before taking our things to the cottage on Winona. Five hours it took for the cat to fall asleep, and the door chimes woke him. The Pacific was hard and restless in the fog.

It was entirely improvised, they say. An hour and six minutes streaming back and forth between jazz and classical, and broken across four parts. The concert became famous, in part, because of the quality of the audience, careful as they were not to applaud or cry out until Jarrett had entirely stopped playing. You can hear in the recording, at the end of each section, a moment of full silence before the crowd erupts.

I heard it for the first time that summer, on recommendation from a dying poet. I listened on grey walks to the seawall, the weed store, a coffee shop with no bathroom or food service. It was June and I was half-zipped in a winter coat. Our cottage was small, 800 sq ft, so we took calls with our therapists in the Prius. I walked by on my way in from the cliffs, pretending I hadn’t noticed her. The cat swished his tail at the screen door.

Always get the last word.

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Critics dubbed his a “homesick lyricism,” celebrating Jarrett’s merging of the modern and the nostalgic. His long, uninterrupted improvisations were punctuated, almost always, with moments of dissonance, his hands playing at two different time signatures. A sort of churning, the now-dead poet had said, like he’s clearing the chalkboard between movements. I found myself listening for these slippages, harmony giving way, one hand dancing into a different time.

Bly wrote a poem titled “Listening to the Köln Concert,” which I read years before knowing the concert or Keith Jarrett. The notes abandon so much as they move, he writes; and later in the stanza, the music is my attention to you.

A creek ran downhill past the cottage and emptied somewhere into Blue Whale Cove. We knew no one, just our landlord and his adult son, and we’d walk along the wrinkled creekwater. The path took us to that same look out. It was rare to see more than 20 yards out into the cove, but a handful of times in August the fog burned off, the sky shock blue. The first whale we saw was young and curious, breaching on one, then the other side of a small fishing boat. L saw it first and got very quiet. Then she took me by the hand, and said my name.

D.S. Waldman is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University and winner of Poetry Society of America’s Lucille Medwick Memorial Award. He serves as poetry editor at Adroit

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